A generation ago, owning a daily newspaper was a license to print money. And being a reporter at a major daily was a big deal. You got paid top dollar to serve the public good, in the process generating what Washington Post President & CEO Philip L. Graham called “the first rough draft of history.” Judging from a new ranking of 200 careers, those days are long gone. Newspaper reporting came in dead last — number 200 out of 200 — in the CareerCast.com survey, meaning it offers a worse combination of income, stress and hiring prospects than any other job that was ranked. Broadcasting and photo journalism didn’t do much better, coming in numbers 184 and 188 respectively. Janitors, cashiers, dockworkers and maids all did better than that in the rankings.
O.K., I understand that the Internet has transformed journalism, draining ad revenues away from print while lowering the barriers to entry for people with mediocre reporting skills (and values). But are these findings really believable? I don’t think so. For starters, the survey assigns suspiciously high rankings to some improbable careers. Would you believe that being a dental hygienist is the 6th best profession in America, or that sociologist belongs in the top 20? How about ranking parole officer (number 27) above psychiatrist (37), surgeon (51) and judge (79)? And then there are construction trades like bricklaying (number 53), where the immigration status of lower-paid workers may make them reluctant to participate in surveys.
Beyond that, the journalistic profession is a highly stratified business with castes ranging from Brahmin to borderline Untouchables. I deal mainly with the Washington press corps, and every journalist I know makes well above the $36,000 median salary that CareerCast.com assigns to newspaper reporters. That includes writers for the trade press such as Defense News and Inside the Pentagon. I’m sure there are thousands of reporters toiling away at local weeklies who make less than the median-income figure cited, but lumping them together with a journalist at the Chicago Tribune or Los Angeles Times creates a very misleading picture of the profession.
As for long hours and high stress levels, it’s important to recognize that in journalism these conditions are closely related to job satisfaction. Reporters may grouse about unresponsive sources and dim-witted editors, but most of them like what they do and know it’s more important than cleaning teeth. When’s the last time a parole officer forced a president to resign? One of the reasons why work conditions may seem tough in journalism is that many educated people would much rather be a reporter than an actuary (the highest-ranked profession) or software engineer (number 3). Maybe that turns the Washington Bureau of the New York Times into a Hobbsian state of nature, but only because the jobs are so appealing to so many talented people.
The bottom line on journalism is that it’s one of the very few professions where people are paid to be creative and civic-minded on a daily basis. Even the worst rag in the business — that’s right, the New York Post — leaves its readers better prepared for their duties as citizens than they were before they picked it up. Yes the profession is changing, and yes many fine reporters are being left behind in the race to find a new business model in the age of social media. But journalism remains as central to democracy today as it was when the Founding Fathers enshrined its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Personally, I’d much rather be a reporter at USA Today than a software engineer — unless, that is, I was allowed to use my software skills to fix the paper’s dowdy web-site.
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